“Start with your dreams and goals, instead of focusing on your problems”
Miles Hilton Barber dreamed of being a pilot when he was a boy. But in his twenties he was hit by a genetic disease that destroyed his sight, leaving him totally blind.
His brother Geoffrey had the same condition. But the remarkable thing about these brothers is that they’ve both gone on to become record-breaking adventurers. The even more remarkable thing is that Miles (and Geoffrey) didn’t start adventuring until age 50! If you’ve ever felt held back by conditions beyond your control, or if you’ve ever worried that it’s too late to start, this story is for you.
I met Miles many years ago when I was working for an advertising agency. I’d recently come back from two months traveling in India and Miles’ story stuck with me. He had a particular quote: “the only limits in life are the ones we accept ourselves”, which I have carried with me ever since.
When I started writing about purpose I was eager to speak to him. In person he is full of passion and energy for life. He truly believes that nothing is impossible. When you read these things online it can be hard to take them seriously, but Miles is sincere. He has faced desolation and triumph - and taken it all with a dash of humour.
For context – and because he doesn’t like to brag – here are some of Miles’ biggest achievements:
- First blind pilot to undertake a 55-day, 21,000km Microlight flight from London to Sydney.
- Completing the Marathon Des Sables – 151 miles across the Sahara desert, known as the “toughest footrace on Earth”.
- A world record as the first blind person to man-haul a sledge over 400km across Antarctica. Only frostbite prevented him from becoming the first blind person to reach the South Pole.
Perhaps most important to him are the relationships in his life – he has been happily married for 41 years and has three children and three grandchildren, of whom he speaks fondly.
Of course, originally, Miles thought he couldn’t achieve any of this.
At 18 he attempted to join the Rhodesian air force but failed his medical. The administrators told him: ‘I know you love aeroplanes, but you’ll never fly and you’ll never be a pilot.’
Dreams and realities
Miles’ dad had been a WWII fighter pilot, a wing commander. As a boy, Miles had read books and seen photos and listened to his father’s stories. He saw it as his destiny to become a pilot.
After his diagnosis with the condition that would destroy his sight he tried to live as well as he thought a blind man could: ‘I thought that the best I could do was to be like my blind peers. If you think about a rainforest, all the trees grow to the same height. And I thought that to be as good as my peers, that was total success.’
For three decades Miles’ dream of becoming a pilot lay dormant. ‘It was a bit like a bereavement’ he says. ‘I tried to deny it. Had my head in the sand for a while. I figured that I was going to have a big anchor holding me back for the rest of my life. It took until the age of 50 to get past that.’
And then, in his fifties, Miles’ brother Geoffrey started building a boat in his back garden.
A blind sailor on a wild ocean
Geoffrey, as blind as Miles, was building the boat by touch and feel. He not only completed the vessel, he proceeded to sail it solo across the Southern Ocean from South Africa to Australia.
When people do something so daring and so outside the bounds of normal behaviour, it naturally arouses suspicion. This was true for Geoffrey’s friends, who were concerned:
‘His friends thought he was wanting to commit suicide and planned to go out with a splash, so to speak, by drowning in a massive storm’, says Miles.
But nevertheless, Geoffrey made it to Australia in 51 days.
‘That was my kick up the backside.’ Miles remembers. ‘I was confused because we were both blind, but he had set an amazing world record. And me, I was waiting for a miracle from God or medical technology. I thought: if I could see again then I could live my life. And this silly brother of mine wasn’t waiting, he was getting on and I thought: “you’re not meant to do that”.
‘It was a revelation to me to realise that we can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond.’
Leading the way for others
‘My blind brother said: “You need to be like a Cedar of Lebanon, growing way above the rest. To be as good as your peers is no ambition. That’s nothing at all.”
‘He planted the seed in me that blind people could still have adventures and be successful. But the key was not to sit back and be lulled into this crazy idea that to be as good as your peers is as good as it gets. Someone has to be the role model to say: “you can do more, you can achieve more”.
‘The last thing you want to do is achieve more to become arrogant and proud. But rather say, by God’s grace, if I can do these things it must mean that other people can. It’s like walking through deep snow: you need a strong person up front breaking through and making a path for others to follow.
‘For me it took a while but, up until my brother sailing to Australia, I didn’t understand that my role was perhaps not just to have a job, but to light a fire underneath people to say: “Hey! You can do more.”’
Start with the goal in mind
When Geoffrey reached Australia, Miles flew out to meet him: ‘He said to me: “Miles, the key to achieving goals in life is not to focus on the problems. Stop focusing on your blindness, start with your dreams, your goals”. So, in my case, first of all I had to say: “I am going to be a pilot”, and then ask: “How the heck am I going to do it if I can’t see?”’
At that time there were no flight instruments with speech outputs. Miles realised he needed to find someone with technical expertise who could create this. This was his turning point. Working back from his goal to the reality gave him a concrete task to solve.
Miles’ task took perseverance for sure. By his account, four years of calling and searching, asking and being turned down: ‘this one chap… I kept harassing him, and after about six months he barred my phone number so I couldn’t even get hold of him. I had a sponsor and then that packed up… it all took time.’
He clung onto his goal through all of this: ‘I never gave up telling people it’s going to happen one day, even though there was no sign of it.’
‘Two years before anything was working, my wife gave me a pair of gold cufflinks for Christmas in the shape of a microlight. At that stage nothing was happening and she said: “these are for you because you’re going to fly to Australia”’.
In April 2007, Miles touched down in Sydney after 55 days and 21,000km in a microlight. He flew with speech output technology and a co-pilot on his specially adapted craft. In the process he raised money to eradicate preventable blindness in developing countries. By this point, his new flight record was the latest in a series of adventures, including climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, and running an 11-day ultra marathon from the Gobi Desert to the Great Wall of China.
What is life all about?
Today, Miles travels the world giving talks about his adventures and experiences. He often speaks at corporate events, like the advertising conference I’d been to.
One thing that has struck him about the corporate executives he meets is a sense of being caught in the wheels of business.
A man approached him after a talk in Amsterdam recently. He was financially wealthy, but had gone through a divorce and was living in a different city from his two young children. He said to Miles: ‘My life is empty. What do I do? I’m married to my job, working these crazy hours, but I’m empty.’ He asked, ‘Do you find your fulfilment in all these adventures?’
Miles reply was: ‘No, it’s got nothing to do with that. Life is all about people and relationships. It’s not your bank balance; it’s your life-work balance.
‘My sadness is that so many people don’t think they can get off this treadmill; they think they’ve got to work silly hours and neglect their family and children and loved ones.
‘If success doesn’t include gut fulfilment and happiness and contentment each day, what a crazy thing to be burning up the best years of your life.’
Advice to those seeking fulfilment in work and life
‘My first advice would be, if you’re in a job, whatever the job is, treat those people with respect. Just know that the key to fulfilment in life is meaningful relationships. Not what you can get out of them but what you can put into them.’
This echoes Miles’ intentions when planning his microlight flight to Sydney. He did it not only for the challenge, but so that he could use his position to help others, to raise money for charity and raise awareness of preventable blindness.
Secondly, in the pursuit of adventure Miles realised the value of thinking big. When trying to raise sponsorship he asked for small amounts until he realised this. At that point it was no longer about money, it was about doing something to make a difference in the world. Setting ambitious goals inspired the support of others.
Above all, Miles believes in pushing the limits in order to show the way for others and this is what has united all of his efforts and adventures:
‘Don’t be afraid of failing, worse than failing is failing to try. Push the limits. Get out there. But don’t do it from a selfish point of view, do it always with the idea of being able to encourage other people.’
Read more on Miles’ adventures at mileshilton-barber.com